Origami robot folds itself into shape, walks away (video)

Pretty freaking cool.

The kids at Harvard have come up with a flat robot that folds itself, origami style, into a three dimensional figure that can then simply walk away (using a motor).

In essence, they’ve found a way for the robot to create/build itself.


The epiphany behind all of this was using Shrinky Dinks (those plastic-y kids toys that you put in the oven, and when they heat up they shrink into different shapes).

A team of engineers used little more than paper and Shrinky dinks™—the classic children’s toy that shrinks when heated—to build a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape in four minutes flat, and crawls away without any human intervention….

“Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there. They could take images, collect data, and more,” said lead author Sam Felton, a doctoral student at SEAS….

“Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet,” Felton said. The team used computer-design tools to inform the optimal design and fold pattern, and—after about 40 prototypes—Felton honed in on the one that could fold itself up and walk away. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands.

The refined design took only about two hours to assemble using a method that relies upon the power of origami, the ancient Japanese art whereby a single sheet of paper can be folded into complex structures. The origami-inspired approach enabled the team to avoid the traditional “nuts and bolts” approach to assembling complex machines.

They started with a flat sheet, to which they added two motors, two batteries, and a microcontroller—which acts like the robot’s “brain,” Felton said.

The sheet was a composite of paper and Shrinky dinks™, which is also called polystyrene, and a single flexible circuit board in the middle. It also included hinges that were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens—making the robot stiff—and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour. The entire event consumed roughly the amount of energy in one AA alkaline battery.

The current robot operates on a timer, waiting about ten seconds after the batteries are installed to begin folding. However, “we could easily modify this such that the folding is triggered by an environmental sensor, such as temperature or pressure,” Felton said.

And that’s all well and good, until origami-bug tries to take over the universe.

Here’s the Harvard video, and below is an example of Shrinky Dinks (with some incredibly annoying music).

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • Tatts

    There are just so many half-truths and exaggerations in this story…
    “A team of engineers used little more than paper…to build a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape…” No it doesn’t. It’s already assembled. Calling this “assembling” is just misleading. And it’s a LOT more that paper.

    “Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet,” No you didn’t. There are batteries and motors and microcontrollers and wires and… They are not embedded into one flat sheet at all. They are attached in one lumpy mess.

    “Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together…They could take images, collect data, and more” Except that taking images requires lenses, which aren’t flat, collecting data requires sensors that may or may not be flat. You cannot sandwich together anything as lumpy as what they have created.

    It’s kind of clever, but we already send lots of stuff into space that unfolds and unrolls and forms structural members after doing so. Mars rovers unfold many parts, including the wheels, struts, and camera masts. The solar cells on satellites and the space station unfold for great lengths.

    It’s interesting, but it’s waaaay overblown.

  • And with funding from the National Science Foundation.


    That’d be “big gubmint” I guess.

  • Drew2u

    Ooh, thanks for listening to NPR, also! I forgot to look this up when I got home last night.

  • Indigo

    OMG! Transformers are real!

  • They just totally reminded me of the Replicators from Stargate SG1!

  • More than meets the eye…

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